Monday, August 17, 2009


We live in a rational age, one of science, empirical fact, historical and chronological truth. This is a glorious thing, bequeathed us by the giants of the enlightenment, but it may be taken too literally; it may, if we become beholden to it, be too crude a tool with which to fashion a society. The ‘sovereign fact,’ as Barthelme described it, becomes all: the need for rationality, the search for concrete knowledge, becomes almost a religion in itself. Think, for example, of how Richard Dawkins has taken his brilliant analysis of evolution and become obsessed with using it to discredit religion; in so doing, he is creating the religion of Darwinism: truth! Fact! Evidence! The DNA trail to the start of it all!

Erich Heller, in a study of Jacob Burckhardt and Nietzsche, makes the following obervation:

‘As a historian,’ [Burckhardt] once wrote, ‘I am lost where I cannot begin with Anschauung.’ It is a Goethean word and hardly translatable. Its connotations are visual, and it means the mental process by which we spontaneously grasp, through observation aided by intuition, a thing in its wholeness. Goethe uses it as the opposite of analysis, the mental approach which he feared would establish itself as the dominant habit of an age fascinated by Newtonian Physics, only to destroy all culture of the intellect. Sometimes Burckhardt even felt it to be a nuisance that the historian, in presenting his historical narrative, was bound by the chronological order compelling him to tell one thing after the other when the true order ‘could only be represented as a picture’.

Our modern conception of time is, of course, utterly chronological. We cannot grasp the aboriginal concept of ‘everywhen’, a mythical time in which everything exists concurrently and the moment is eternal. To our rational minds, this cannot be possible: time passes, moments are lived and cannot be relived; anything other is superstition and not to be tolerated. But chronology is merely one way of interpreting history, just as rational analysis is only one way of understanding a subject. The intuitive thinker, the non-conformist, the unconventional, they need to be given space to approach their subjects. We’re in danger of denying them that.

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